"[T]he first chart of all 3 [Cayman] islands" - David Wells, A Brief History of the Cayman Islands
A rare separately issued chart of the Cayman Islands, first published by the British Admiralty in 1880. The image includes a map of the two Lesser Caymans, a separate map of the Grand Cayman, and an inset of the George Town anchorage area. The charts show extensive navigational information, including soundings, tidal information, reef channels, rip currents, and more.
Originally named Las Tortugas, and later renamed to reflect another species of reptile living on the island, the Caymans are one of the few places Columbus can be truly credited with discovering. Under British control since 1670, they are now a British Overseas Territory. The low-lying islands are a popular destination today, in part due to their Caribbean landscapes and crystal seas.
The Cayman Islands were increasingly isolated during the second half of the 19th century after a series of hurricanes and conflicts with the Spanish. This news coverage lead to a surge in public interest leading to the HMS Sparrowhawk sailing for the islands in 1880-1881. The crew of the Sparrowhawk produced the first navigational map of all three islands, seen here. In particular, they greatly increased the knowledge about the Lesser Caymans, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. As such, the highest point on Little Cayman retains the name Sparrowhawk Hill, as it was labeled on the map.
The British Admiralty published some of the best available sea charts into the modern era. This can be seen in the extensive soundings and other notes that have been made. The navigability of the lagoon, back barrier areas, and the open ocean are well explained through this map to an extent where this chart could likely be used in the present day. Further, the signals from lighthouses, buoys and beacons are all explained in the upper right corner. Inland areas are equally well documented. Some notes are made on topography, and all major roads and buildings are annotated. George Town is still a small coastal town centered around Fort George. The chart goes so far as to document a cotton tree which has grown to a height of 50 feet, sketching it on the map.
In all, this is a good quality map of the Cayman Islands, remarkable for its visual simplicity while conveying extensive information.
The British Admiralty has produced nautical charts since 1795 under the auspices of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (HO). Its main task was to provide the Royal Navy with navigational products and service, but since 1821 it has also sold charts to the public.
In 1795, King George III appointed Alexander Dalrymple, a pedantic geographer, to consolidate, catalogue, and improve the Royal Navy’s charts. He produced the first chart as the Hydrographer to the Admiralty in 1802. Dalrymple, known for his sticky personality, served until his death in 1808, when he was succeeded by Captain Thomas Hurd. The HO has been run by naval officers ever since.
Hurd professionalized the office and increased its efficiency. He was succeeded by the Arctic explorer Captain William Parry in 1823. By 1825, the HO was offering over seven hundred charts and views for sale. Under Parry, the HO also began to participate in exploratory expeditions. The first was a joint French-Spanish-British trip to the South Atlantic, a voyage organized in part by the Royal Society of London.
In 1829, Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort was appointed Hydrographer Royal. Under his management, the HO introduced the wind force scale named for him, as well as began issuing official tide tables (1833). It was under Beaufort that HMS Beagle completed several surveying missions, including its most famous voyage commanded by Captain FitzRoy with Charles Darwin onboard. When Beaufort retired in 1855, the HO had nearly two thousand charts in its catalog.
Later in the nineteenth century, the HO supported the Challenger expedition, which is credited with helping to found the discipline of oceanography. The HO participated in the International Meridian Conference which decided on the Greenwich Meridian as the Prime Meridian. Regulation and standardization of oceanic and navigational measures continued into the twentieth century, with the HO participating at the first International Hydrographic Organization meeting in 1921.
During World War II, the HO chart making facility moved to Taunton, the first purpose-built building it ever inhabited. In 1953, the first purpose-built survey ship went to sea, the HMS Vidal. Today, there is an entire class of survey vessels that make up the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Squadron. The HO began to computerize their charts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, the compilation staff also came to Taunton, and the HO continues to work from there today.